Shipbuilding, Dealing with Reality

The Coast Guard’s fleet of large cutters  is facing a budgetary “perfect storm,” and if it is to survive without a major reduction in numbers, a change in procurement strategy is required.

The NSCs cost as much as an entire year’s AC&I budget for vessels. An analysis of the Coast Guard’s FY 2012 budget request for vessels and the funding history of the National Security Cutters (NSC), funding only about one half the cost of an NSC each year, and with three more NSCs still to be funded, suggest it is unlikely the Coast Guard will see the first Offshore Patrol Cutter in 2019 as has been planned. In fact there is reason to believe the Coast Guard will not be allowed to proceed with the OPC program as currently envisioned.

There are rumblings that some parties want to kill the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) program all together, and many of those who understand the need to replace old ships question why all of our replacements are notably larger than the ships they replace.

  • 378s, 3,050 tons, full load (fl) to be replaced by NSCs, 4,375 tons
  • 210s, 1050 tons (fl) to be replaced by OPCs, 2,500 to 3,000 tons
  • 110s, 165 tons (fl) to be replaced by RFCs, 353 tons

We haven’t generated the “Fleet Mix Study” that might justify these larger and more capable ships. Saying we need larger ships to provide better living conditions for the crew won’t cut it and frankly it does a disservice to our crews who have shown a willingness to accept spartan condition on shipboard, particularly since now most, if not all, will have a place to live ashore as well.

If we want to actually arrest and reverse the aging of the large cutter fleet and have a more capable fleet in the long run, we have to do something different, and we have to do it soon.

Additionally it appears that we may have funded enough NSCs and the Coast Guard needs a different kind of cutter to address the emerging new ways drugs are being smuggled.

Conceptual Rendering of the OPC

Disclaimer by Acquisition Directorate (CG-9): (This) conceptual rendering (is) for artistic display purposes only and do not convey any particular design, Coast Guard design preferences, or other requirements for the OPC.

This is an alternative plan.

  • Stop NSC production at five or at most six ships and put them all in the Pacific.
  • Forget the Crew Rotation Concept (CRC), at least for now.
  • Kick start the OPC program by building the first six or seven as lower cost, smaller replacements for the remaining 378s and give them the sensors needed to find drug running semi-submersibles and true submersibles.
  • To provide “value added,” work with the Navy to make sure they have credible wartime mission capabilities.

NSCs go north, OPCs go south. NSCs will specialize in ALPAT while OPCs will specialize in drug interdiction, with at least some of them being made capable of interdicting true submersibles.

Normally it takes three ships to keep one on station, suggesting six NSCs to keep two on ALPAT at all times, but mixing in an occasional OPC during the summer months, 5 should be enough.

The OPC, at 2,500 tons or more, is a hard sell as a replacement for 1,000 ton 210s, but as a replacement for the 3,000 ton 378s, at what should be close to half the price of an NSC, the Coast Guard is clearly being a team player. This gets the program started and, in quantity, the price should start coming down substantially. After the first six or seven are built as 378s replacements, and they prove their worth, they may not be as hard to sell as MEC replacements as the economy improves.

Earlier posts (here and here) addressed multiple crewing of National Security Cutters and, following the numbers, demonstrated why, even if it works as planned, the current plan could only provide the equivalent of 10 conventionally manned cutters, not 12, and the total operating costs are likely to be higher compared to conventionally manned ships providing the same number of ship-days.

The only example I know of, where multiple crewing of complex ships works is the Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine program and there, the incentives to make it work are huge. Total numbers of submarines are limited by treaty so there is a desire to get maximum use out of an artificially limited supply and the capital cost per crew member is probably an order of magnitude greater than it is for Coast Guard Cutters. The Navy with all their experience does not attempt to multi-crew it’s attack submarines even though this is a closely allied program, again with a far higher ratio of capital cost to crew cost. If we want to try this concept, try it on the Fast Response Cutters first, where it is more likely to work, but kill it as a planning consideration for large ship procurement. Consider it just another hoax perpetrated on the Coast Guard by Integrated Deepwater Systems.

Since we started planning the new fleet of large cutter, our needs have changed. Drug smugglers have begun to change their tactics, using semi-submersibles and even true submersibles (here, here, here, and here). A ship equipped with a towed array and an embarked Navy MH-60R ASW helicopter detachment would substantial improve our chances of intercepting these.

Having a credible wartime capability can also help convince members of congress these ships are a worthwhile investment. Once we have given the ship a towed array and the ability to operate Navy ASW helos, at almost no costs we can add the ability to operate them in a war time role by insuring we have spaces appropriate for storing their weapons and other equipment, spaces that can be used for other purposes until required.  It also should not be difficult, working with the Navy, to insure they can accept at least some of the LCS Mission Modules.

A 2,500 ton OPC, as currently planned, is in many respects an excellent replacement for a 378 and it will have lower operating costs. More importantly, if the OPC program survives and goes on to replace the 210s and 270s, we will have a far more capable fleet overall.

We need to start this change with the FY2013 budget.


20 thoughts on “Shipbuilding, Dealing with Reality

    • I haven’t heard of this, I have my doubts, anybody know? At any rate the PCs are much more like the Fast Response cutters than the NSCs.

      The Coast Guard 110s in the Persian Gulf periodically swap crews, but that is not really the same thing as scuffling a number of crews among a smaller number of vessels to get more Op Hours.

      We know we can do that for SAR boats. I suspect it is eminently doable for 87 ft WPBs and may work for the Fast Response Cutters. It would certainly be a way to have precommissioning crews for FRCs prepared to take over new construction, but lets start at the smaller, simpler end of the spectrum before we try it on our most expensive and complex asset.

      • The Navy’s Cyclone-class PCs, of which 13 exist in the the US inventory (less the 3 CG-operated vessels which are due to return to the Navy this fiscal year), operate on a crew rotational concept where 11 or so crews (A through K) rotate through the different vessels. Presently, 6 of the vessels are forward deployed to the CENTCOM AOR while 4 remain stateside in Little Creek, VA. As has been mentioned in several public sources, the material condition of these vessels is poor, in part due to some extended service life issues and also to the lack of ownership by crew assigned to man hulls for only brief periods of time. With this in mind, I’m not sure if this is quite the example that we want to emulate for future manning/operation of the Webber-class FRCs or our remaining WPBs.

        As for the Coast Guard’s PATFORSWA cutters (where I am presently stationed), we do not presently rotate crews from hull to hull. However, the crews are stationed onboard for only a 1 year assignment, and rotation dates are on a more-or-less 6 month cycle (roughly 2/3 of the crew rotates in the summer, and 1/3 of the crew rotates in the winter). Given the historically high OPTEMPO and operational requirement of these cutters, we do try to sail with all of the racks filled (22-person crew) and work with the other cutters and shoreside personnel to ensure that replacement personnel are trained and qualified.

        Arguably, the High Tempo-High Maintenance 110’s in Key West are the current test bed for multi-crewing cutters, but unofficial comments through the grapevine regarding that program range from it being a success to something short of failure. In terms of the SAR boat (small boat example), even teh 87′ WCPBs are significantly more difficult to maintain and operate, and any crew-rotational concept would still need to address the corresponding lack of ownership, maintenance time, and budgetary issues.

      • It is unfortunate that no one wrote the history of the 82-footers in Vietnam. The boats had a much higher “OPTEMPO” than those in the Persian Gulf and the crews did all their own maintenance except for engine replacement and an occasional diver to remove fish nets, lines or replace the prop and, at times, a burned out radar. I knew a BMC who thought coffee was an electronics lubricant.

        The crews there lived on the cutters full time. The time in port ranged from twelve to 36 hours between patrols that lasted from four to seven days. For the abuse the boats got from daily operations and from the Coast Guard’s mantra that no cutter was pulled off off patrol because of weather, the cutters were in remarkable shape. The crew rotation with replacements could equal those of PATFORSWA. However, the real key to keeping quality was the experience the men brought with them.

        In country indoctrination was OJT. For example, I spent about twenty-four hours on an troop ship getting to Vietnam. The day I arrived I was assigned to the Point Dume that was loading ammunition when I arrived. They were thrilled to get their GM and turned over the storage to me. I was able to catch a few hours sleep and at midnight (we always left on patrol at midnight) I was up standing the mid-watch. Welcome to a combat zone. This was in spite that I had not served aboard an 82-footer before but I did have nearly four years of previous sea time behind me.

        The experience level of the crews made all the difference. Some of the COs were on their second WPB commands and the CPOs could count many years on the WPBs. Some of the BMCs had been OIC and I knew one ENC who made a career of the 82-footers. The prior experience levels of the crews has never been accredited with the success of the operation of those cutters in Vietnam. However, it is something that should be looked at before any multiple crewing concept is put in place.

        Just what is the level of experience does the long term replacement pool have. It is not enough to pipeline train. This is one reason I have harped upon the policy of minimal manning. The Coast Guard may look at the costs involved keeping larger crews but it is the issue of creating a sea experienced cadre for future use. The platform on which the experience is gained makes no difference. All have similar characteristics the experiences there are adaptable to any other.

        An anecdote. While undergoing REFTRA at GITMO, we began our scored man overboard drill. Poor ole’ Oscar had had his final dunking of the training cycle and the OOD had made a perfect turn and came up on him. The first class cook stood ready on the foc’sle with the heaving line and all know that the exercise time stops when the line crosses Oscar.

        The CO yells to the foc’sle, “Cookie, make the first toss count!”
        The cook looks back to the bridge and replied, “Captain, I was a seaman long before I was a cook!”

        The question is the Coast Guard developing transportable seamen and engineers (including officers) for the future?

  1. “Maritime Memos” a web site by said a few kind words about this post (Thanks) and offered encouragement for this course of action,


    “The Coast Guard Blog had an excellent piece yesterday by Chuck Hill, on how to straighten out the Coast Guard’s shipbuilding program….In a nutshell, he says that the Coast Guard should cut short the over-specced, ludicrously expensive NSC program and kick-start an OPC program that buys a lot of standard-design boats which are smaller and cheaper than those now planned. Sounds good to me. March 7, 2011.”

    This also brought several hundred additional readers to CGBlog.

    I don’t necessarily think NSCs are “ludicrously expensive” for what we get, but I do think five is enough. If we do as suggested we will end up with a fleet of five NSCs and at least 32 OPCs. A production run like that should yield substantial economies of scale. Hopefully we could start with one ship in FY2013, two ships a year beginning in FY2014 and perhaps more than two ships a year relatively rapidly thereafter.

  2. I think your idea is thinking of the greater picture. It does not matter how advanced a single cutter is you still need numbers and ships have port time and dry dock time. More ships are needed and fast. NSC can only spend so much time at sea. I think also we should look at a ship slightly smaller maybe at 1800 to 2000 tons. I like your idea of defining a role for different type cutters. Good post and nice job.

  3. Instead of the whole crew rotation scheme aka Blue/Gold crews, why can’t the USCG adopt the individual repatriation system used successfully by the merchant marine for decades?

    • Lee,

      Would you try to explain it for those of us not familiar with it?

      (Incidentally the intention was never to have blue and gold crews but to have four crews that rotated among three ships.)

  4. Merchant ships crews usually sign shipping articles (old term for contract) for a specific voyage or length of time. IF the ship is not back in the US at the end of voyage/time, mariners are repatriated to an agreed home port. Since merchant ships are all crewed by licensed journeymen, and since the USCG specifies mannying scales, when a mariner is to be replaced his relief is flown to a report, comes aboard and takes over. The relieved mariner is flown home.

    This system works best when you have a large class of similar ships. So for instance, the FRCs could benefit from mariner type crewing IF the USCG believed its crews would serve for long periods in several ships of the class? The class manager would have x number of personnel = the number for crews of cutters in service and in the “pipeline” i.e. those in training, medical, leave status and rotating on/off the cutters (MSC has about 20% in that category).

    Instead of training up whole Blue/Gold crews and keeping them in CONUS until needed. The USCG could train individuals with the needed ratings/skills and have a much fewer number in a replacement pool. When it came time to rotate or in case of not fit for duty, or emergency leave, the replacement would be dispatched to the cutter needing him/her. Walk onboard shake their hands, check the books, sign the papers and relieve cutterman would go home i.e. be repatriated.

    Just some info for thought

    • The concept has its merits; however, the MM show up to the job with an expectation of being fully trained and qualified to execute a single mission. The Coast Guard operates fundementally different when you start talking large (relatively speaking ) cutters. The small workforce and limited training/qualification resources necessitate that each cutter becom a training platform so that Coasties learn to not only operate the cutter, but maintain it, and execute its multi-mission roles. These personnel must then move on to perform other missions at other units. It doesn’t have the luxury of creating an asset specific pool of fully trained/qualified personnel that remain in a single class of cutter.
      Consider also, that major cutters by their very nature require a significant level of planned maintenance. By increasing operational hours, maintenance burden will increase while the opportunity to complete it diminisheswithout impacting the operational availability.

      The devil is in the details.

    • Lee, Thanks,

      For larger ships, swapping out individuals would probably be less disruptive than swapping out entire crews. Still a lot of questions about how it might be implemented in the Coast Guard.

      It got me thinking about multi-crewing for the FRCs and I may write something on that later.

  5. I would caution against attributing the notional tonnage of a new vessel design to “better living conditions.” Some shipbuilding realities also include the fact that environmental regulations have driven up the space and weight requirements…everything from diesel engine emissions and zero waste discharge zones that are ever expanding. In simple terms, the U.S. government would violate numerous laws today if it tried to build 210’RELIANCE Class cutter. It doesn’t look good for the agency charged with enforcing maritime pollution regulations to invoke the National Security exemption to international and federal pollution prevention laws every time it cuts steel.
    Artificially constraining the size of the ship can actually increase the cost, if its operational requirements are not reduced accordingly. Labor is a large part of the construction costs, at this scale, density becomes a significant driver of cost, as opposed to dimensions.
    You are right to point out that the OPC is not merely replacing the 210′ and 270′, it must meet the post 9/11 domestic counter -terror and counter drug smuggling missions. I believe this concept is lost on many of the decision makers that see the OPC as a 210 and 270 “replacement.” The 210’s were designed for limited coastal enforcement missions, the 270’s were built to meet the Cold War adversary, complete with the capability to tow a sonar array (which never materialized as a mission). Modern cutters are expected to be ready to execute many missions…all the time. The modern mission sets require, for better or worse, more space, weight, and power. (This of course doesn’t mean that 2500-3000 tonnes isn’t excessive, either). I’ll leave the final ship quantity to smart operational analysis folks.
    I’m fairly certain that given the Deepwater woes the CG has faced, that they are doing all they can to deomnstrated due diligence by evaluating foreign and U.S. Navy designs against Coast Guard mission requirements…dotting the “i’s” and crossing the “t’s”. Unfortunately, ship designs are often uniquely built around the specific requirements. What seems a simple modifcation on the surface (say upgrading a sensor suite, or substituting diesel engines for gas turbines) sets off a design spiral that impacts just about every other system…resulting a major redesign effort. That requires time….and more money.
    Which brings me to your alternate plan…”kick-starting” the OPC program ultimately means rushing to a build contract before requirements are solid and design is mature. I think the DoD and CG has been there and done that…….with poor results, again and again….The Coast Guard should focus on nailing down those true mission scope requirements, design a ship around them , and provide the oversite required to hold the builder to the contract. (Way easier said than done)

    Finally, I must disagree with the idea that adding size to improve living conditions is a disservice to those that have endured 3 high bunks crammed as close together as possible with communal shower sand toilets. God help you if someone in your berthing area had poor personal hygiene. That is flawed logic, and if followed ot its logical conclusion would put our berthing standards back to the days of sail…Our sailors deserve better than what they have now. All have an extremely difficult job and giving a few extra cubic feet per person may be a small price to pay for a bit less misery while underway.

    The devil isin the details.

    • I think we are in violent agreement. I just want to Commandant to stop using improved accommodations as the first reason he gives that the ships are larger. As you point out, there are lots of other good reasons why the ships need to be larger than 210s.

      I am very much in the steel is cheap, air is free, school of thought, Increasing size makes the ship more survivable, makes helo ops safer, gives better seakeeping. The fact is we don’t need to add size to improve living conditions, we need the size anyway and the better living conditions will come along with it.

      Better living conditions is not a good selling point when we are addressing the argument to Congressmen who feel a pressing need to cut the budget and who have seen many pictures of our Army and Marine counterparts sleeping on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.

      On the other hand, we have been working on defining the OPCs for almost a decade. The FY2012 budget includes $25M more for the preliminaries. If we can’t get ready to award a contract in the two and a half years we have before the end of FY2013 something is seriously wrong. Actually we would not even need to award the contract in FY2013 since AC&I money doesn’t go away at the end of the FY.

      We simply can’t continue to build only one large ship every two years and I don’t think the Congress is going to increase our budget enough to continue the programs begun or expanded in FY2012 and also add the additional approximately $600M we need to build an NSC every year.

  6. I had a ship sponsor who always argued that is was MSC crew habitability standards which led to T-ships being bigger. When in fact it was the sponsor far over sized mission spaces that drove ship size up.

    Accomodations are pretty comparable on civilian crewed ships. Naval ships vary widely. Cutters I will take your observations for that.

    Chuck is sounds like the USCG has not learned that quantity is a quality of itself? Or the problem with exquisite systems is ……..

  7. Mr. Hill,
    Are you aware of the Coast Guard having a ship building plan/forecast for the next 10 years. For instance, do they have a projection as to how many vessels they will begin building each year broken down into the type of vessel and number forecasted each year? Thanks

    • Robert to some extent I do know what is desired, but that does not mean it will happen. I will be talking about this when I do the second part of the piece on the GAO’s report on Deepwater, that I began here:

      Build NSCs until we have 8 funding one a year though FY2015
      then begin building OPCs with the first delivered in 2019 followed by two a year, to a total of 25.
      Meanwhile, build up to 6 Fast Response Cutters a year, to a total of 58.
      Icebreakers and Arctic Patrol Cutters–no plans for new construction yet. The study those plans will be based on has apparently just been issued, but I haven’t seen it yet.
      There was money in the FY2012 request to begin a program like MMA (major maintenance availability) to extend the life of the icebreaking tugs and that should be extended to the newer buoy tenders as well.
      The CG has a partnership with corp of engineers that is looking at a common vessel that will replace inland tenders.
      Plus there are boat programs.
      Take a look at CG-9’s web page for more info:

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